U.S. Winter Seen Harsher Than Last Year, Boosting Demand

The coming U.S. winter will probably be cooler than a year ago, boosting demand for heating fuels such as natural gas, a panel of forecasters said.

While December will be warmer than normal, temperatures will drop through February, increasing natural gas use by 13 percent over the same period from last year, Commodity Weather Group LLC President Matt Rogers said during a panel discussion at Earth Networks Inc.’s seventh annual energy weather seminar in New York yesterday.

The U.S. winter, measured by meteorologists from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, may be 21 percent cooler than last year in terms of natural gas-weighted heating degree days, Rogers said.

“It looks colder than it is,” he said. “Twenty-one percent colder than last year isn’t saying a whole lot because last winter was so warm.”

In the winter of 2011 to 2012, warmer-than-normal temperatures, particularly in the large cities of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, crimped demand for heating fuel, sending natural gas futures to a 10 year low in April.

Last winter was the fourth-warmest on record in the contiguous 48 states, with an average temperature of 36.8 degrees Fahrenheit (2.7 Celsius), according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cooler Water

Weather patterns bringing warmer-than-normal temperatures to much of the U.S. have dominated for the last 1 1/2 years, Rogers said. In the last few weeks meteorologists have begun to detect signs this pattern is beginning to dissipate, he said. Among them is cooler water returning to the northern Pacific Ocean, which can influence weather patterns over the U.S., according to Rogers, whose offices are in Bethesda, Maryland.

This may mean a harsher winter for the Midwest and Northeast in December and January, said Violeta Toma, the lead seasonal forecaster for Climate Forecast Applications Network in Atlanta. The U.S. southwest and south central states have a chance to be warmer than normal.

“We see a lot of warning signs for colder outbreaks and winter storms over the Midwest and Northeast,” said Toma, another of the panelists.

The best chance for above-normal temperatures in the Northeast this year would be along coastal New England, said James Aman, a senior meteorologist at Earth Networks in Germantown, Maryland.

El Nino

An El Nino weather system, which occurs when the central Pacific Ocean warms, doesn’t appear to be developing, potentially disrupting forecasts, according to the meteorologists. For the last several months, government weather experts in the U.S. and Australia have been calling for El Nino to form. The system typically brings a more southerly storm track across the U.S. and milder winter conditions in the northern states.

The changes in the weather patterns across the northern hemisphere and uncertainty about the El Nino has led to a lack of confidence among forecasters, Aman said.

“So don’t be making a big bet on the forecast,” he said.

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